The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

Quran_ApostropheMany English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed.  The use of the apostrophe here is not in any of the ways used in English: possession and to show missing letter being the common.  Instead we use apostrophes occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic and here it actually represents a sound. But what sound is the apostrophe in the Qur’an represent?  For most Americans ignore it.

My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions.  There is not a standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones.  Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation.  In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate.  The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”.  However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at.   I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.


The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”).  So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?

Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”.  Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:

  • Egyptian – 50 million
  • Algerian – 22 million
  • Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
  • Sudanese – 19 million
  • Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
  • North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
  • Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
  • Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria

Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook.  But even their prescriptions will change over time.

The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.



Filed under Linquistics

11 responses to “The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

  1. I think you might have meant to say that Arabic reads right to left…

  2. Thanx, Daniel, I fixed mistake — I posted it when I was tired and did not proof well. Corrections are always deeply appreciated. Now, what did you think of the post?

  3. Well, it’s not something I’ve ever thought about, though I’ve noticed that I’ve seen both the “Koran” and “Qur’an” spellings used. I kinda like the look of “Qur’an” better, and I suppose that it’s a bit more true to the Arabic lettering, though I don’t know that that legitimizes it in any way. In terms of English spellings of foreign words that use non-English alphabets, I’ve always thought it’s best to just spell phonetically, in hopes of guiding an English-speaking reader toward the closest pronunciation. But, as you point out, there are may ways of pronouncing the word even in the Arabic language, so maybe it’s all moot!

  4. Thanx, Daniel. The reason Qur’an spelling is happening is because of bilingual journalists and coverage from the Middle East. There are many transliteration methods for Arabic into Roman script. The problem is that many Arabic phonemes do not exist in English so there can be no “phonetic spelling” — besides, English is not phonetic as it stands — another complication.

  5. Earnest

    I am in favor of the phonetic spelling of “Khuh-RAAHN” myself. I used “uh” where I would prefer to use “inverted e” if I knew how to type that in. At least that is how I have heard the “aq” sound in “Iraq” pronounced by people from the region.

  6. Stu

    “English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes” – Doesn’t it? 😉

  7. Gendleman Thoits

    “English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes”? Not only does that contain a misspelling, it is inaccurate. But this is, after all, the 21st century, and the consensus now seems to be that knowledge is residue from a bygone age and it’s time to have a little fun with ignorance once again.
    “Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for reëstablishing our former ignorance?”
    —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)

  8. @ Thoits,
    It seems you are one of those proud web trollers who add nothing of substance to the web but ugliness. I corrected the spelling and of course English uses apostrophes in other ways, but not as a guttural stop, I may re-use that. You are welcome (though your soul may know no gratitude — something that probably burned out years ago) for the other things I offered of value.

  9. Enoch

    Very useful thank you. I always wondered whether it was a missing letter or as you have explained, a guide to pronunciation.

  10. @ Enoch : You are welcome. Glad you enjoyed.

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